I was sitting in a meeting about a month ago at a table with someone who, if we wanted to make this quantitative, is about 57 levels above me on the professional scale. I got shaky talking to her. And even shakier when, after telling her about my previous work at a homeless shelter, she asked me what motivated me. What a loaded question.
Let me just take a second to say that talking to people in a professional setting about this is both terrifying and beautiful. Terrifying because it forces me to share the gospel—which I love but am quick to avoid. And beautiful because of just that.
I had a private conversation with Jesus in my head that went a little something like this: “She asked.” “Yes but this isn’t really professional.” “She asked.” “But I don’t want to.” “She asked.” “Nope.” “She asked.” “UGH fine.”
Our conversation shifted to the homeless, the fatherless, and the lost.
She got to talking about how, a few years ago, she and her husband took their family to Washington, D.C. for a mini-vacation filled with baseball games, a tour of the city, shopping and eating good food, and, to round out the weekend, a trip to a homeless shelter to serve dinner (because that’s how everyone finishes a vacation, right?). She said she wanted to show her kids how fortunate they were.
First, YES. I think visiting a homeless shelter can teach us some of life’s most beautiful lessons by reminding us to be grateful for all that we have.
But it goes a heck of a lot deeper than realizing how fortunate you are.
From my time with the homeless, I’ve learned how to love deeply. How to persevere. How to choose to have joy in the midst of the worst of worst circumstances. How laughing at hard things makes those things feel less hard. How to fight against oppression. How, even on a thrift store budget, you can look fabulous. How crying doesn’t mean you’re weak–it means you’re strong enough to feel. How unbelievable strengths and talents can be hidden under layers and layers of hurt, addiction, and failures—but how, when those layers are peeled back, confidence abounds and the world becomes a better place.
I learned that I was fortunate when it came to having a job, a house, and a bank account. But I also saw every single day how naïve I truly am. And all it took was committing to talking to these people with the dignity they deserve.
There was a sign in a break room at the Mission that said, “There are no ‘homeless people,’ but rather people who have lost their homes who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Don’t dare to think of the homeless as a standard to base your gratitude off of. Behind the hungry man asking for food on the corner, or the kid who comes to your classroom smelling like he hasn’t showered, or the woman in tattered clothes pushing her double stroller down a busy road with more children on either side of her—there is a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, a friend, a daughter, a son—a person who has landed in a rough situation. A person worthy of your time and attention. A person created and designed and loved.
Let me let some of my friends’ stories speak for themselves.
One guest left her hometown in Africa to come to America for a fresh start. She met a man, had a child, found a job, and lived happily for a few years in Northern Virginia. But, at the drop of a hat, her husband became abusive, and, with her only family on another continent, our shelter was the only safe place she knew of. After a few months of getting her feet on solid ground, I got the privilege of dropping her and her daughter off at her new job as a masseuse at a five-star resort in the mountains. Yes–she was homeless. But she found success because she worked hard.
Another guest entered into a residential recovery program offered at the shelter. He was a veteran turned successful businessman who got addicted to drugs and alcohol and was facing years of jail time. At his graduation ceremony from the program, he said, “People always ask me why I wake up so early each morning. It’s because I’m just so optimistic about every day—I can’t wait to see what the Lord is going to do with it.” He became a friend, an advice-giver, and a picture of redemption.
A man traveled from another country to visit a friend in America, but got stuck in the airport as he tried to return home. He was missing proper documentation, and no one could figure out what to do with him, so they sent him to the shelter. He started suffering from horrible stomach pains and ended up in the hospital. I’d call his hospital room to check in on him, and, after a routine introduction of “Hola Miss Holly,” he’d dive into too many details about his recent medical procedures and digestive issues. But he never, ever gave up in trying to return home, and he taught me what it means to have courage.
I got to spend a ton of time with the kids staying at the shelter. Did you know that, in the small “city” of Roanoke, there’s roughly 60 kids that regularly spend the night at the local shelter? And that’s on a small night. We danced to old-school rap songs, did homework at night, read books and watched movies, and, when things were just too tough to bear, we went to Wendy’s for a frosty. These are kids that have bright futures ahead of them that desperately need to be supported along the way.
And in case a laugh is what you need on this beautiful Tuesday, there was a day that a shelter guest dressed like a (very scary looking) clown and threw candy at the kids as they got off the school bus. I’ll never forget as she sat in my office awaiting a talking-to with the director, with the lipstick she used to paint her face streaking down her cheeks due to the perfectly-timed rainstorm. (She taught me that, sometimes, you’ve just gotta laugh.)
I so badly want to share pictures of all these people, and they take up a whole bunch of space on phone. They are beautiful souls with huge smiles and infectious laughs and eyes that hold deep, deep stories yet glimmer with hope. You’re just going to have to trust me on that.
But, alas, here’s a picture of the Homestead, where tears of joy were shed as I dropped my sweet friend off. This picture screams hope and promise and victory against a system that viciously tries to pull people down.Instead of walking by the woman on the street who asks for spare change, shock her and invite her to lunch at McDonalds. Serving a meal at a homeless shelter is an amazing thing to do–but, as you dish up the food, start a conversation. Ask them about their stories, because I promise you they have one.
And I promise you’ll get more out of it than realizing how fortunate you are.